Now, as someone pretending to know a lot about movies because I watch a lot of them, I also pretend to know what movies are great for what situation.
The idea that I know what movies are good for family movie night is laughable. I usually mock all family-friendly fare that Hollywood releases.
But there are some that get through my cold, cynical heart despite the general plasticity of family movies.
So here are some great ideas for family movie night at home, that is low on plasticity, high on warmth and preferably some depth.
But here’s a list of the best merch I could find related to the movies I’ll be discussing:
Merch ideas for Family Movie Night at home
Ah, the gazillion dollar property. There’s a mug that changes the writing based on the heat of the liquid inside. Unsurprisingly, the messages are “I solemnly swear I’m up to no good” and “Mischief Managed”.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Oh, you didn’t see that coming, did you? You thought I’d lead with Studio Ghibli stuff. But no, you’ve been blindsided.
Actually the shock value is the only reason why this is first. I do love the movie though. ANother loving creation by Wes Anderson, matters of family is touched upon.
But not with the over-optimistic tone of most movies of the type. Plus animation almost gives it extra license to mess with the formula.
Familial relationships are a major feature in every Wes Anderson movie, except maybe Rushmore High and Grand Budapest. It is the core of his storytelling. And Fantastic Mr. Fox is no different.
It tells the story of a fox thief who changes his profession when he learns his wife is pregnant. The action jumps 12 years into this new direction for the Fox family.
The kid is now a sullen teen and Mr. Fox has spent just enough time to fall into a rut with his new profession. A rut boring enough to make him take actions that can be explained away as a mid-life crisis.
These actions are what trigger the events of the movie. Animation has always had the benefit of being able to tackle more mature themes under the guise of kid-friendliness.
A more kid-friendly watch might be his latest movie, Isle of Dogs. But I find Fantastic Mr. Fox to be the far superior movie, with very charming animation.
It’s got an excellent voice cast that includes George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Wes Anderson-fixtures Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray.
Extra-terrestrial. Legend. Movie scenes that will live long in the memories of movie-watchers everywhere.
It possibly redefined what is expected of movies for kids. No longer did it have to be corny and cheesy when it came to drama. Spielberg trusted his audience to take drama that felt a bit more real.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Not one of my favorites, but an example of making movies for family audiences done right.
It’s weird in all the right ways, and Gene Wilder gives a performance that makes it the family classic that it is.
It is the story of a boy who finds a golden ticket, that grants you a tour (or a ‘trip’) of the eccentric WIlly Wonka’s candy factory.
The tour turns out to be sequence after sequence of funky chocolate-chewing fun as the chosen kids and their chaperones survive adventure after adventure.
We are introduced to Oompa-Loompas, who raise more ethical questions than tasteful jokes.
There are lessons learned and chocolates sampled. It’s an innocent, fun movie with all the goodness that comes with watching a 70s movie.
I would definitely recommend the adults to watch the movie by themselves first. It does cover a few topics that they may not want their kids to be exposed to.
But as a movie, no other does a better job of showing what growing up is all about. Things that seem innocent when you’re young are later shown to be bigger issues than you’d imagined.
It also shows what the kids go through when their parents get a divorce, however amicable it may be. The way they view their parents and their subsequent relationships post this divorce.
This is a real gem from Richard Linklater and is a real testament to his vision of shooting a movie over the course of 13 years with the same cast.
And the cast themselves do a wonderful job. Getting Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette to play the parents was a real master-stroke.
They were great actors when shooting started in 2001. And they’ve only gotten better in the 12 year period.
But the bulk of the pressure fell on a then-7-year-old Ellar Coltrane. He was the protagonist around whom the story revolved. That meant he had to convincingly play a 7-year-old.
All the way up to a 19-year-old. Now as a director you can find a good child actor that has the qualities you’re looking for. That meant getting someone to play a convincing 7-year-old who’s not hopped up on candy getting excited about every little thing around him.
But then to continue playing this character for 12 years, without say the experience you would get from being a child actor on a TV show, and still play well on the screen when you’re 19 is nothing short of monumental.
But he did it. He did the unthinkable. We went from seeing a cute kid at 7 all the way to being an adolescent and then an adult (technically) in the course of 165 minutes.
If this sort of concept interests you, there are a series of British documentaries that covered the lives of 14 British kids from the age of 7 all the way up to 63.
It’s called the Up film series (no connection to the shattering Pixar movie that will be covered in the aptly named ‘Pixar stuff’ section) and you get to watch a set of kids go from 7 to 14 to 21 and so on to 63.
Every 7 years we find out what route the kids’ lives have taken and it is the best example of why every life is worth its own movie.
There are some true shockers as to how lives play out and some that seem to be written in the stars. Opinions and beliefs change and lifestyles uprooted.
It started as a way of figuring out how much private education benefits a kid vs a public education and it started in 1964. But it has become its own animal.
Especially now, when you can see real-life people age 56 years right before your eyes, and you feel a sense of pride or sadness at the way their lives went.
The story is life itself and the storytelling is through the way the makers edit the video. A point that is brought up a few times by the subjects themselves as they let their disgruntlement known on camera.
The franchise that had an entire generation wishing for a world of Nimbus 2000s and pet owls and friends that pick you up in flying cars and crazy trees and unsafe inter-school competitions and hidden real estate and bunking school for an entire year to LARP Lord of the Rings.
The global phenomenon that was the Harry Potter book series was quickly and decently adapted to the big screen.
I would never claim the movies are anywhere near the books. They are diluted versions that were made with love and clear. But there are limitations.
Read the books to them. But if they seem hesitant, the movies are a good way in. Think of them as trailers for the books.
But they are good movies in their own right. Combining the sense of wonder with the sense of dread as events started getting darker is a tough task.
But the Warner Bros productions have done well enough.
It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And the generation of kids that best experience it is parents now with family movie nights of their own to organize.
Also, the set of movies to warrant an outdoor movie screen experience, if possible.
I can’t think of a better way to watch a movie from the HP franchise than to set up a big projector screen, a few lawn chairs, get some snacks together and binge. Outdoor movie night of my dreams.
But in my opinion, nothing comes close to the hilariousness and the heart of Mrs. Doubtfire.
Sure there’s a story and it will stick with you. But driving this movie forward is one of the great performers of all time. In his absolute element.
Given a good script and the license to improvise, there is no one better.
You can never go wrong with Robin Williams, and Mrs. Doubtfire is peak, Robin Williams.
The Princess Bride
Another classic that lives long in the memory.
Starring recent-addition-to-Stranger-Things and overall-cool-guy Cary Elwes as a pirate-peasant and Robin Wright as Princess Buttercup and Mandy Patinkin as most-quoted-movie-character, Princess Bride is fantasy done right.
Making fun of the usual romance tropes of such movies, Princess Bride is an epic adventure with memorable characters populating the world, including Andre the Giant.
It also happens to be one of the more rewatchable movies on the list. Every scene creating a sense of delight in the viewer that doesn’t fade away easily.
A tone of semi-serious fun can be felt throughout the movie, which means you’re relaxed for the most part, while still worrying about the fate of the characters.
This one just had to make the list, didn’t it? The motherlode of family movies has over the decades served up many classics and then soulless remakes of those classics.
But when said soulless classics make a billion each, you can’t fault a business for prioritizing more such soulless classics.
But let’s keep the anti-Disney snark to a minimum. Let’s focus on the many fantastical, beautifully crafted worlds they have been responsible for over the decades.
I guess Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is as good a start as any. Showcasing the latest in 1930s animation, it is still a beautiful watch.
But I fear more energetic musicals of the modern era may make them seem a bit tame. The Little Mermaid will probably suffer from this problem too, even though it was made much more recently.
But fortunately (maximum sarcasm exceeded), there is a live-action version coming out soon.
Then there are two movies. One, whose live-action actually surpassed the original animated one, and another a pale imitation.
The Aladdin movie with Robin Williams voicing the Genie is when getting celebrities to voice cartoons became a thing. It may have been misused quite a bit.
But Robin Williams blew the roof off with his energy, and the story and animation were great too. The live-action was meh.
The Jungle Book is a fine movie. It’s innocent and the music is great. The music became part of why the live-action worked so well.
The live-action Jungle book built on the good ideas, found a great cast (Idris Elba as Shere Khan and Bill Murray as Bhalu), found a great Mowgli and built a technical masterpiece around them.
Then the meh-ness of the Aladdin combined with the technical mastery of Jungle book to adapt my favorite Disney movie of all time.
The 1994 Lion King is the bomb. The voice talents of James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, and Jeremy Irons among others came together with one of the great animation movie scores and breathtaking animation to hit you right in the feels.
With humor and drama, the movie became an instant classic and is a great option for family movie night.
The live-action ripped off every scene, improved nothing but looked real good on the big screen.
When I think of more recent Disney originals, I can only come up with Tangled as a fun watch. But I haven’t exactly been very enthusiastic about Disney recently, so I wouldn’t take my word for it.
Then there’s Big Hero 6 with a solid protagonist and a kickass buddy, Baymax. That is the formula most animated movies go for.
The finest name in animation until Disney bought it. Now it’s fine. It is responsible for classic after classic since they came out with the first Toy Story.
They then went on to complete an unlikely trilogy of classics. The franchises that couldn’t do that include Alien, Terminator, Matrix, Die Hard, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and so on.
But Pixar did it with Toy Story. 3 excellent movies that shared a theme and covered different grounds using a great central cast. To form the untouchable trilogy. Unquestionable quality.
But then they had to go and make a 4th, and somehow. Somehow, they nailed that one too. I can’t think of another quadrology that comes close to the quality of the Toy Story movies.
Then there are standalone movies that made you giggle with joy and rip your heart out not soon afterward.
Finding Nemo and Finding Dory were both comedies with heart-wrenching drama. The first about a clownfish looking for his only son and finding a true friend along the way.
The second one came all of 13 years later, was about the friend looking for her own family. But she has to battle the ocean, humans and her fickle memory to get there.
Wall-E did something similar minus the opening. It also touched upon a serious issue but without being preachy. A hallmark of good writing. It gave us one of the best robots in animated movies, maybe second to Iron Giant.
The Incredibles became animation’s First Family with their first entry. The sequel mildly bolstered that claim but could’ve done without it.
Inside out was also acclaimed, but I thought it was ok. It wasn’t exactly subtle, but it had an interesting premise.
Ratatouille is another Pixar gem that taught kids the value of believing in yourself and other nice things. I remember it for making a chef-rat seem feasible and may be preferable.
Cars was fun. But 2 kinda sucked. Coco was more Disney than Pixar, although it had good music and the visuals were brilliant.
Studio Ghibli stuff
I’ve written a post specifically about the good stuff that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have given the world.
But the highlights are short. These are movies with heart. A lot of it.
Hayao Miyazaki is a master animator and a wonderful storyteller. His career has been one landmark animated movie after the next.
He has an uncanny ability to draw in kids and adults into the worlds he has created and get you invested in the characters.
None show off this ability more than My Neighbor Totoro.
Though Spirited Away is the more acclaimed one, with an Academy Award for Best Animated feature to add to the list.
These are beautiful stories set in fantastical lands that you wish were real, because of how well detailed and magic they seem.
If that sort of thing interests you, make sure you check out this post for more ideas.
Although they sh&t their diapers with their recent releases like Boss Baby, Croods, Turbo and Trolls, they have some of the best family-friendly franchises out there.
But it must be said after the first and maybe the second Shrek, it did go down the cheap laughs route without much thought going into it.
The same can be said of Kung Fu Panda. After giving us the combined voice talents of Jack Black, Angeline Jolie, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, etc. it went into silly territory with the second and especially the third.
Madagascar, relatively, has kept the quality up. The first introduced us to Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Gloria the hippopotamus and Melman the giraffe.
And then we realized it was the penguins and the lemurs that were franchise gold. The first one had the 4 protagonists breaking out of a zoo and crash-landing on Madagascar on their flight to Africa.
A flight piloted by penguins, who would much later get a terrible money-grab of a spinoff. Penguins of Madagascar wasn’t terrible, but it was a lost opportunity to do something memorable.
The second has them completing their original flight to their spiritual home. Naturally, there’s great humor and emotional moments peppered throughout.
The third one does wade into the shallow end of the silly pool but doesn’t go all the way in.
This has the broadening group of protagonists joining up with circus animals and fighting off poachers I guess? It has Katy Perry’s Fireworks song, and it was a solid theatre experience.
But Dreamworks did come up with what I consider their marquee franchise. The How to Train your Dragon series.
Dreamworks has always had class-AAA animation, but even by those standards, HTTYD was impressive.
With some fantastic kinetic scenes, a good premise, good voice cast and some heart, the first is the favorite movie for quite a few kids from that time.
Rather than going for fun family experiences, the franchises kept aiming higher in terms of theme. It’s mainly about taking responsibility and the pain of separation.
The second took this theme a few steps forward and ramped up the visuals.
The third didn’t rock the boat and stayed on this course to finish off the movie series satisfactorily.
Antz, of course, was released a month before a certain Bug’s Life by a certain Pixar. Unfortunate timing.
That’s the list of my recommendations for fun, and maybe thought-provoking family movie night at home.
Fun is great. But it’s a lot better if it gets the family excited and talking about it the next day at breakfast.
It’s a high bar but I’m hoping my scattergun approach will land a few hits when you try them.
Do let me know if any of these recommendations worked. Or how the ones you’ve already tried worked out.
Obviously there’s a lot of room for additions. But I’m hoping you guys will get me sifting through the Disney library again with a few comments for support.